Gary Clark Jr. rocking the San Francisco music scene


Gary Clark Jr. rocking on in the music since 2010. Photo credit: Creative Commons

Imagine everything you ever thought you knew about music being to shatter into pieces right in front of you. Every note, every rhythm, every beat you’ve ever heard being stripped down on stage right in front of you and being morphed into a symphonic barrage of funk-a-delic rock ‘n’ roll unlike anything you’ve ever heard. Something as audacious as that might cause many to smirk in doubt, as it seems that for the last half-century, musicians have explored every part of the vast universe that is rock ‘n’ roll, leaving nothing left to discover. Well, one young bluesman out of Austin, Texas may have a thing or two to say about that.

Gary Clark Jr. first exploded onto the music scene in 2010 when he was personally invited to Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar festival by the man himself. Since then, he has taken the world by storm, and has been asked to jam out on stage with everyone from John Mayer to The Rolling Stones, and even Beyoncé. Since his debut, Clark released two records and is on tour promoting his most recent work, the self-titled album “The Story of Sonny Boy Slim“. On September 29, I was fortunate enough to go see what all the hype was about when Clark performed at San Francisco’s Knob Hill Masonic Center.

After an opening act from one of Clark’s high school friends, the entire room went black, and cheers erupted because, despite our excitement, we all knew the night was about to get a little more blue. Without any lights turned on, Clark’s bassist and drummer began to play, emitting a groovy beat in anticipation of their lead’s arrival. Moments later, through the dark walked a figure whose entrance caused the crowd to go even wilder, because, towering at well over six feet tall, Clark is unmistakable to spot.

After a quick little blues medley to warm up, he opened up the show with his song “Bright Lights” which is a modern interpretation of classic bluesman Jimmy Reed’s 1961 song “Bright Lights, Big City” however Clark took what Reed did, and literally turned the volume up to 11. After singing the final chorus, which appropriately says “You gonna know my name by the end of the night”, Clark’s declaration to all the naysayers that he is indeed a force to be reckoned with, he let his guitar go to work blowing everyone out of the water. To follow up, he played his hard-hitting homage to blues songs of the past, “When My Train Pulls In”, one of his finest songs that hits me like a sledgehammer to the back of the head every time I hear it. At one point, he even went outside of the scope of the recorded version of the song and started hammering his foot on a wah-wah pedal, À la Jimi Hendrix (who he has been compared to regularly), turning it into a 10-minute sermon of rock that I will never forget.

After the song was over, I was in visible shock trying to process what my ears heard. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. His skills are raw, primal even. They are not something that can be learned or taught by anyone. They come from somewhere deep down that you either have or you don’t. It is a rarity to find an artist that sounds better live than they do on an album, but Clark pulled it off. Every song was a little different that then way it was recorded, allowing Clark to truly convey how he was feeling at that particular moment in time.

Clark continued to impress throughout the night, shredding through riff after riff, nearly splitting my skull in half. He incorporated songs from both of his studio works throughout the show, showing his true musical versatility and playing everything from rock to delta blues to the soul and funk influences that can be found on “Sonny Boy Slim”. One thing I was particularly appreciative of was Clark’s showmanship- or lack thereof. Clark does not take the stage to smoke machines or a fancy light show or special effects. He simply walks on stage, throws a guitar around his neck, and lets the music speak for itself. In the wake of modern arena-filling shows that are put on by popular musicians, it was refreshing to see someone consume his audience with just his talent alone.

After thunderous encouragement from the crowd, Clark returned to the stage and finished off the night with an encore performance of his song “Numb”, a fuzz-driven headbanger that lasted close to ten minutes.

Gary Clark Jr. is already a legend in his own right, and he has set the stage for himself to one day be regarded as one of the great all-time guitar heroes. If he continues doing what he’s doing, and I sure hope he does, one day I’ll be able to make my kids jealous when I tell them that I saw “Sonny Boy Slim” himself in concert.